Is it difficult to learn Chinese?

With respect to reading and writing Chinese, the answer is yes. Written Chinese is not based on an alphabet. Even though the Chinese characters could be broken down to around 220 radicals, there is not a simple rule to “spell” them in terms of the word radicals.

On the other hand, if you would just like to pick up a few words to make small talks, that should be as easy as learning to speak any other foreign language. You could even try to write down the words by using the Romanized pinyin system.

(kùnnan) and 困难 (kùnnan) mean difficult or difficulties, whereas (yì) and 容易 (róngyì) mean easy, easily or apt to.

Traditionally, the Chinese have adopted the view of 知易行难 (zhī yì xíng nán), viz. it is easy to know about something but often difficult to follow up with action.

On the night of his betrayal, 耶穌 (Yēsū Jesus) said to his disciples, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This is akin to the Chinese idiom:

The heart is more than willing, but there is not enough strength or ability to do it.

We know how detrimental tobacco and alcohol can be to our heath, but many try and fail to quit. We may know all the words and material that need to go into a book, but it is not so easy to put everything together to make a finished book.

One could just as well argue for the other case – 知难行易 (zhī nán xíng yì). After you have learned a difficult skill or branch of knowledge, then it is easy to put it to use and complete a task. For example, once you know the commonly used chord progressions and understand the logic behind the harmonization of the scale tones and the chords, you are apt to be able to play a song by ear and improvise the harmony.

Similarly, you are more likely to be able to make meaningful statements in a language when you know the underlying grammar and the conventional syntax. The article at this link provides an interesting example.

As a noun, 今天 (jīntiān today), 昨天 (zuótiān yesterday), 明天 (míngtiān tomorrow) and 后天 (hòutiān the day after tomorrow) can be placed at the end of a sentence. For example,

Nà yào děngdào míngtiān.
That will need to wait until tomorrow.

However, when using these words as adverbs, do not place them at the end of a sentence. You could say,

Míngtiān wǒmén yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

Or you could say,

Wǒmén míngtiān yào qù kàn diànyǐng.
Tomorrow we are going to the movies.

In English, you rarely hear: “We, tomorrow, are going to the movies.” Therefore, when translating Chinese into English, or English into Chinese, you will want to employ the conventional word order rather than doing it verbatim. Please consult Chapter 17 of “Learn Chinese through Songs Rhymes” for the correct placement of adverbs and adverbial phrases in a sentence.

难度 (nándù) means the degree of difficulty. 难倒 (nándiǎo) is to baffle or deter someone.

Zhègè wèntí bǎ wǒ nándiǎo le.
This problem (or issue) has me baffled.

难关 (nánguān) a crisis or a difficult critical juncture. 度过难关 (dùguò nánguān) means to have passed through a difficult juncture.

难过 (nánguò) means to have a hard time or feel bad.

Tā xīnli hěn nánguò.
She felt very bad.

When pronounced in the fourth tone, (nàn) means calamity or disaster. 灾难 (zāinàn) means calamity, catastophe or suffering due to a disaster. Therefore, refugees are referred to as 难民 (nànmín), and a refuge is called 避难所 (bìnánsuǒ).

轻易 (qīngyì) means easily or rashly.

易燃物 (yìránwù) are combustible or inflammable materials.

好不容易 (hǎo bù róngyì) means with great difficulty or effort. Often the (bù) is omitted, and you will just hear 好容易 (hǎoróngyì). One may get confused if one simply takes this phrase at face value.

我好容易来到这儿, 她却不肯见我.
Wǒ hǎoróngyì láidào zhèr, tā què bù kěn jiàn wǒ.
I took all the trouble to come here, but she refused to see me.

(yì) also means exchange or change.

贸易 (màoyì) means trade. Therefore, 自由贸易 (zìyóumàoyì) is free trade, and 国际贸易 (guójìmàoyì) is international trade.

If you have not heard of 易经 (Yìjīng The Book of Changes) before, you can read about it at this link.

What are the things you find most difficult while learning to speak, read and/or write Chinese?

The five elements – the wood radical

木兰 (mùlán) Magnolia

The Chinese philosophy calls upon five essential elements of nature to represent the cyclical changes and progression of things in the universe. The properties of wood, fire, earth, metal and water lend themselves well to modeling the interactions among the various factors in all aspects of life, at times generating and enhancing each other, at other times suppressing or annihilating each other (much like the participants in the food chain). These elements are referred to as the five movements or the five phases, or 五行 (wǔxíng). Therefore, you could think of these five elements as symbols employed in a crude modeling theory, which attempts to describe and explain everthing including the functions of the human body, the evolution of society, and even the fate of individuals or a country as a whole.

Such is the importance of these five elements that many Chinese words contain the corresponding characters as word radicals: (mù wood), (huǒ fire), (tǔ soil, earth), (jīn gold, metal), (shuǐ water).

The word (mù) can mean tree, wood, timber, wooden, or numb. For example, 木材 (mùcái) is lumber, 木制品 (mù zhìpǐn) are wooden products, and 麻木 (mámù) means numb or unfeeling.

A kind of melon that grows on trees is called 木瓜 (mùguā papaya), and an edible tree fungus is called 木耳 (mù’ěr tree-ears). Black tree-ears work well in stir-fries. When braised for a long time with a pot-roast, they confer a gelatinous quality to the dish.

The wood radical is assigned to woody plants and things assciated with wood. Put two (mù) together, and you’d get (lín), which means woods or a grove of trees. Add another (mù) on top, and you’d get (sēn), which means forest, or dark and gloomy. The word commonly used for a forest is 森林 (sēnlín).

Wǒ xǐhuān zài shùlín li sànbù.
I like taking walks in the woods.

The word (běn) contains a short stroke on the stem of the tree to stabilize it. As a nound, it means a foundation, a basis, an origin, a book, or the pricipal of an investment. As an adjective, it is used to indicate oneself, a present period or a local place. As an adverb, it means “originally”, “fundamentally” or “of course”. This word is also used as a unit of measure for counting books and pamphlets.

zhè shì běndì de chǎnpǐn.
This is a local product.

Tā běnlái bù xiǎng lái.
She originally did not want to come.

Wǒ gēnběn tīng bù dǒng .
I basically don’t understand (what was said).

You could think of the character (xiū) as showing a person sleeping like a log. Indeed this word means to stop or to take a rest.

The character (dāi) features a wooden mouth and is used to describe a person who is stunned, inexpressive or dim-witted.

Tā dāi zhù le.
He was stunned.

Like (qiǎo skillful, ingenious), (xiǔ rotten, decayed, senile) also contains a symbol with several bends and turns in it. However, in this case, the messy woodgrains indicate rot and decay.

With (kùn), the word root (mù) is completely boxed in. No wonder this word means to be stranded. The word for difficulty is 困难 (kùnnan difficult, difficulty).

如果有困难, 来找我.
Rúguǒ yǒu kùnnan, lái zhǎo wǒ.
If you encounter problems, come see me.

You should be able to find in your dictionary many names of trees that contain the word root (mù). Have you watched the animated film “Mulan”? 木兰 (mùlán) is the lily magnolia tree. (lǐ) refers to plums or plum trees. It is also a Chinese surname. You may have heard someone introduce himself this way:

我姓李, 木子李.
Wǒ xìng Lǐ, mù zǐ Lǐ.
My surname is Lee, the Lee that’s made up of wood and seed.

橄榄树 (gǎnlǎn shù) is an olive tree. Click here to listen to a beautiful song by the same name. Click on “Show more” to display the lyrics and English translation. The displayed scenes match the lines in the song quite well.

(zhī) or 树枝 (shùzhī) are tree branches. As a noun, (guǒ) means fruits or the result of some action. (gēn) is the root of a plant. It is also a unit of measure for rod-like objects.

Nā gēn zhùzi wāi le.
That wooden post is not standing straight.

For a list of other units of measure and their usage, please see Chapters 6 and 7 of “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes”.

Obviously, the name of products made from wood take on the (mù) radical. Some examples are: (chuáng bed), (tǒng vat) and 梳子 (shūzi comb). In ancient times, some cups, or 杯子 (bēizi), were also made from wood. What are the Chinese words for desks and chairs?

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